The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 27, 1997


Vandalized and scandalized

for the Commentary page

By Teresa Leo
There's nothing like getting down on your hands and knees and looking under your car at 7:45 AM for parts that were pried, ripped, broken, or otherwise torn off to remind you that you live in a big city. This, however, does not compare to what comes next, the odyssey of replacing vandalized parts, that moment when you find yourself the only female standing in line at the counter of your local automotive superstore. I find myself there a lot. For some unknown reason, my unassuming '88 Chevy Nova with 109,000 miles receives an absurd amount of attention from local vandals.

Just last summer someone actually broke in and removed the Club from the steering wheel for no apparent reason. All four doors were locked and no windows were broken. I couldn't figure out how this was possible, but then noticed that the top of the driver's side door had been pried and bent back slightly like a broken wing. This meant that whoever broke in and stole my Club actually took the time to re-lock the driver's side door. All that was left of the Club were the little inner workings of the lock tumbler cast about chaotically on the passenger seat.

The real difficulty for me always comes at Automotive Superstore, where I find it the rare occasion for a woman to be taken seriously when talking car hardware with a man. During the Club episode, the salesman didn't seem to believe my story about the lock being picked, and was downright offended when I presented him with the tumblers as evidence. He ended up showing me a top-of-the-line, super-deluxe, just-try-to-pick-this-lock type of Club, and was not amused when I asked him if I needed to buy a Club to protect this Club.

But the most frustrating experience at Automotive Superstore came after finding my car with the trunk lock picked and therefore wide open to the world on Lombard Street one Friday morning in the rain. I knelt down on the wet street and looked for parts to take with me, and, indeed, I found the cap to the trunk lock under the car. I jammed it in my pocket, then drove across town with my trunk wildly banging up and down.

The man who sold me my new trunk lock was missing the index finger on his right hand. I looked at the lock, which said "GM," and had a bad feeling about it; not that I know much about car hardware, but one can always tell when something's a bad match, just doesn't fit the bill. I didn't say anything because you've got to figure that a man who loses a finger somewhere along the line has learned a thing or two about being careful, like checking the safety latch one more time before putting the hand in to fiddle with the inner workings, the jaws of life and knuckles and moving parts coming together to make an impression that lasts.

When I asked the man where I could get the lock installed, he raised his hand in a fingerless point to the garage across the street.

The owner of the garage looked at my car and then at the lock and said, "we're talking Chevy here." I thought that maybe there was a way to make the best of that GM lock, but when I suggested this to the man he simply pointed me back in the direction of Automotive Superstore without even dignifying my suggestion with a response.

I humbly walked back across the street and stood at the parts counter, where I had to buck up and take it when the new guy who waited on me said, "Are you SURE you asked for a Chevy lock?" "Am I sure?" I thought, "I'm damned sure; I've never been more sure of anything in my life, as sure as I stand before you at this grubby parts counter."

The way I saw it there were two choices: a self-righteous but heated confrontation or a wimpy but manipulative retreat. I picked the latter and said, "Ya know, my mistake, us women, what do we know about cars, GM, Chevy, hell if it moves and has FM radio we're happy as little clams."

Everything changed: he gave me that "Aw shucks" look that men give you when they think you have accepted your place as the mindless female they believe you to be, then he marched back to the Parts Warehouse and laid one spanking new Chevy Nova trunk lock on the counter like a cape laid over a puddle on a street corner in the rain.

This isn't the first time I've stood at the parts counter, treated like I don't know the difference between a tailpipe and a hood ornament, and it probably won't be the last. But the real downfall of my choice of action is that in the end I actually succeeded in perpetuating the stereotype of women as helpless creatures, reinforcing the belief that leads to a situation like this in the first place. All for a little forced chivalry and a lock that catches on the first try.


© 1997 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.